Wednesday, 2 November 2011

"A powerful and classic success" - The Times of Malta

Revenge fuels the worst of human acts, but when revenge is of a divine nature, the balance of things is sent entirely off kilter. Originally conceived as a play about a power struggle within a family rent asunder by pride which tempts fate and instigates dies irae with tragic consequences, Euripides’ The Bacchae was also meant to focus on the religious experience which the audience was meant to get from the performance.

MADC’s production of this play last weekend, in a contemporary version by David Grieg, managed to put across the struggle between the opposing forces of politics and religion – both equally capable of being corrupted by pride – and of the often hidden desires which reveal themselves to be a darker side to our socially accepted standards of morality.

It was a performance which relied on the visual as much as it did on the interpretative aspects of theatre and as an artistic concept worked extremely well. With a three-part set designed by Romualdo Moretti, the stage was divided into three performance zones – a higher-level stage at the far end of the area, connected by a sloping catwalk to a low square stage with a large grille floor at the front. Director Toni Attard assisted by Lizzie Eldridge, had a clear artistic vision for the piece and the cohesion between the excellent use of stage space, the stylised and effective choice of costumes designed by Giuseppe Agulli and Martino Nociforo, Chris Gatt’s highly effective lighting design and Sandra Mifsud’s tight choreography, turned the performance into a visual feast.

The combination of these elements was slick and well-composed, appearing natural without the over-stylised feel of forced movement and artificial blocking. One small directorial choice in terms of positioning which could have done with better placement was Pia Zammit’s delivery of her speeches as Agave, which were portrayed with great sensitivity and passion from the lower catwalk. Her grief at having killed her own son Pentheus in a fit of Bacchanalian ecstasy was genuine and controlled. She was at times unfortunately masked, losing some of the effect her lines would otherwise have had if she had delivered them from a higher level or a more universally visible one.

Original music by Alex Vella Gregory added to the sensory experience, making the performance work on the multiple levels of sense-experience and reaffirming the underlying sensuality and sexual tension of the piece.

The eponymous Bacchae themselves, played by Maria Pia Meli, Marta Vella, Laura Best, Nicola Abela Garrett, Veronica Stivala and Coryse Borg gave an excellent performance in terms of timing, synchronised movement and choral unity. Each endowed with a strong and harmonious singing voice, they made the most of the choral pieces and portrayed the moral abandonment and quasi-orgiastic loss of control as a hedonistic mob controlled by mass hysteria in Dionysian revelry in a highly effective and tasteful manner. Their performance was effortless and uncluttered by anything other than their stunning red costumes and the endlessly varying light-play that lasted throughout the rather long, uninterrupted two-hour performance. This could have posed a serious problem had the entire piece not been so engaging and dynamic without compromising the sombre and poignant silences which were required at particular moments before a pending crisis or climax.

Playing secondary parts as Man, Nicola Abela Garrett gave a commendable performance, while Coryse Borg’s Second Messenger was adequately paced but could have done with a bit more fire. It was, however, Veronica Stivala’s First Messenger whose delivery I enjoyed the most due to its poise and well-struck balance between urgency and finality.

A newcomer to MADC was TV actor Kurt Castillo, whose Dionysus – the orchestrator of the entire piece, was perhaps slightly too subdued in the initial scene but worked his way up to a strong and convincing performance as the play unfolded. His ire was genuine and his seething, heaving desire for recognition as a deity by his mortal half of the family and subsequent revenge for its denial as well as the drive to avenge his mother’s reputation, were clearly delineated motives which he exposed and used to fuel his wrath upon Thebes and his cousin Pentheus, played by Philip Leone Ganado.

Strutting in frighteningly high heels and kissed by golden mottled make-up the androgyny of the lustful Dionysus merged with his cloven animalistic streak and Mr Castillo’s fluid movements made for a laudable first-time appearance in a classical dramatic theatre piece. Mr Leone Ganado’s as Pentheus was, as usual, tightly characterised and well-executed until the final scene when his underlying sinful interest in the rites of the Bacchae belied a rather trivialised change in his emotional journey towards the temptations of his repressed religious and sexual psyche.

It seemed rather abrupt a transition in so short a time and could have done with a slightly lengthier process of change starting earlier on in the play.

While Manuel Cauchi’s Kadmos, Agave’s father and Pentheus’ and Dionysus’ mortal grandfather and Paul Portelli’s Teiresias, the blind soothsayer, beloved by many authors over the years from Shakespeare to Eliot, had smaller roles to play, their performance was spot on: both delivered their lines with practised ease, giving them depth and credibility. It was a powerful performance all round and deserves to be credited as such – with a very definite idea of where the script was taking them, all involved, from directors to the well-cast ensemble, made a clear statement that Greek tragedy, when done well, is truly timeless and a pleasure to watch.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

"[The Bacchae is] a dramatic, stylish and beautifully choreographed production"

Mind-blowingly beautiful, seductive and terrifying. 

He is Kurt Castillo’s Dionysos in MADC’S production of The Bacchae, currently showing at the MITP in Valletta. 

I’d been hearing good reports about this production all through last weekend. But it took me a while to actually secure my ticket, mainly because I have to admit that Greek tragedies aren't my typical cuppa. 

Yes, ladies and gents, I’m part of the great unwashed who prefer their  culture quota to include a liberal side serving of either caustic humor or sex’n'guts. Or both, like that unforgettable production of Fat Men in Skirts all those years ago.

I could have sworn that long Greek monologues based on the vengeance of the gods didn’t fall in either category. It’s Greek mythology for heaven’s sake. It's what we studied at school, not what we look for in entertainment on a Friday night.

Then I saw Darrin Zammit Lupi's mesmerising photographic chronicles on Monday, from which the images in the above video were compiled. Every image hinted at a dramatic, stylish and beautifully choreographed production. Hmm. I booked my ticket and went on to brush up on my Greek mythology. Wise choice, as it turned out. From the moment I stepped into the MITP I forgot all about my cravings for a good G&T and entered a world of Bacchic intrigue.
A smoke-filled theatre and the quasi-sinister Bakkhai, languishing on each corner of the stage, face entirely hidden, set the tone. Enter Dionysos; and from the moment he does, there is no forgetting him. From the serpentine sway of his hips to the semi-insolent way he lilts his own name, he courts the audience. Part Lady Gaga, part spoilt brat, part terrifying god, part androgynous seducer, Castillo makes the part – and the play – his.

The Bakkhai, those wanton women who satisfy Dionysos’s every whim, are the other focal point of the production. Fiery red and golden-voiced, every single performer brought a touch of something to the show; Maria Pia Meli’s and Marta Vella’s powerful voices, Laura Best’s semi demented denunciations, Veronica Stivala’s and Nicola Abela Garrett’s swift character changes, Coryse Borg’s pathetic monologue detailing Pentheus’s death…. It was easy for these Bakkhai to disappear within the group, yet they didn’t.

Phillip Leone Ganado was a convincing Pentheus, a tad overshadowed by Dionysos but such is the nature of the play. Manuel Cauchi’s (as Kadmos) and Paul Portelli’s (as Tereisias) monologues were inspired. As for Pia Zammit’s portrayal of Agave, at whose hand Pentheus meets his grisly end… Her mother’s lament towards the end of the play was the very definition of pathos. If Dionysos was the one to set the stage for mindless debauchery, she was the one to give the production its sudden and brutal return to reality.

The whole production wouldn’t have been half as remarkable without Alexander Vella Gregory’s original score, Sandra Mifsud’s choreography or director Toni Attard’s vision. Get your tickets for this production here. It runs this weekend and next.

Follow Ramona Depares' blog here.

The Bacchae - first unofficial review!

Rule no. 1 - Gods are powerful and shouldn't be messed with.
Rule no. 2 - We strain against universal convictions at our peril.
Rule no. 3 - Resistance is futile.

Here are a few random observations based on notes I scrawled on the back of my ticket during the performance. Might be fun if you two add your own ideas after you've watched it.

First off, the set is excellent. It creates a very "rock star" space for Dionysus (I wonder if anyone will ever set the play to punk music? That would definitely tap into the Dionysian potential), and the set division provided an elegant area for exposition.

Throughout the play, an interesting mix of dynamic process and stasis. The staging disturbingly avoids a strict, pictorial focus. Your eye is never automatically guided to human figures (except maybe Dionysus) at the expense of magnified detail. It's Seurat on stage (without the hats and cute little dogs) - you're coerced into following the drama but there's an uncomfortable pressure. We are definitely in a Spenserian bower situation.

The most interesting thing about the production is the way it maintains a very precise ambivalence, so strong and deep that it threads a knife-edge without falling off on either side (or both sides at the same time) between some kind of Apollonian, Gaga-like decadence and the actual Bacchanalia.

A very beautiful way they represented this was when Pentheus (Philip as psycho-sexually repressed, cross-dressing ruler of Thebes) dons the debris of his palace banner as a party frock-cum-shroud.

Pia's Agave was excellent, especially as a little girl lost tugging at her father's knee for comfort that never comes, when the awful truth that she's murdered her son finally dawns on her. And it was nice having the messengers as chorus members (the messengers are our only real window into the Dionysian rites, and having the chorus women play men, recounting scenes of female abandon, somehow makes perfect sense).

Dionysus (god of the scream!) was played very much as a pop star celebrity. The act wasn't very spontaneous though, and as a decision I'm not sure how that worked (again with the Apollonian abstraction vs Dionysian release thing) - it's like he's been immaculately assembled by an entourage of invisible stylists rather than gushing forth fully formed, a spirit of natural necessity.

The fact he's wearing heels too (as a symbol of exertion, twisting the foot into unnatural beauty) removes him from the directly Dionysian, the all-natural abandon. It's one of the things which maybe tipped the balance a little (on that precarious walk across the knife-edge), where "the Scream" becomes a bit of a simper.

So, not to sound like a Paglia groupie or anything (who am I kidding?), but I was definitely reminded of what she said re Gaga as a "calculated and clinical" creature, who is iconic for being a symbol of liberation while in fact presenting herself as anything but.

But maybe this is the modern Dionysus - a digitized deity who accepts his artificiality, who strips himself of revolutionary potential, whose eroticism is entirely conceptual.

The Apollonian fixation in the ritualised solitude of the stark space, the idealised makeup, the coordinating spears, the songs - however, when the Chorus fractures and starts moving and speaking on their own terms you suddenly do see Dionysus. It stops being a show and the audience isn't thinking any more, just experiencing and, more importantly, feeling.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Audience feedback after THE BACCHAE opening night...

"Thank you all, so much, for a stunning piece of work"

 "[The music] fitted the needs of the story and the storytellers; the choreography and the constant 'aliveness' of the Chorus was seamless"

"Visually, we were all captured... the space... worked to inspire and uphold the journey"

"Congratulations on pulling this together with such dynamism and intensity... The Dream Team!"

"May all your seats be sold and may your Scream grow and grow in intensity!"

Don't miss your chance to experience THE BACCHAE... tonight, MITP in Valletta, 8pm!

Friday, 21 October 2011

THE BACCHAE - Opening night tonight!

Don't miss this unique opportunity to see a Euripides classic right here in Malta - the Scream is released tonight!!!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Just 1 week before the Scream is released...

The Bakkhai lose themselves in the Scream

 1 week to go...

Opening night of The Bacchae is less than 1 week away...

Click the link on the right to book your tickets and join the debauchery.... if you dare!

Friday, 14 October 2011

"The power of persuasion" - The Times of Malta explores MADC's The Bacchae

Jo Caruana meets Toni Attard to discover how 2,000-year-old myths, like that on which the upcoming production of The Bacchae is based, are revealing their relevance on the local scene today.

Director Toni Attard is visibly buzzing as we meet to discuss his latest theatrical endeavour – a contemporary adaptation of The Bacchae, being produced by the MADC later this month.

The Bacchae shows how, whether it is religion, politics or a new cult following, you cannot control the workings of bacchanalia.
“I was thrilled when the MADC contacted me about this play,” he enthuses.
“The Greek myths are easily some of the best stories ever written, so full of emotion, beauty and applicability; I couldn’t wait to embrace the challenge.”

And embrace the challenge he has, choosing to go all out on David Greig’s contemporary adaptation of Euripides’ catastrophic tale, originally penned for production by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2007.

The language is modern, although the lyrical and deeply poetic elements of Euripides’ original script have also been retained.

The story follows Dionysos (to be played by Kurt Castillo), the hedonistic god of wine, who returns home to demand worship from the local people and clear his dead mother Semele’s name who had been banished from Thebes by reigning king Pentheus (Philip Leone Ganado).

Pentheus’ grandfather Kadmos (Manuel Cauchi) and Teirisias (Paul Portelli) the old blind seer, are both in favour of accepting Dionysos.

“Dionysos is accompanied by his Bakkhai – his maenads or groupies, presenting a powerful force to be reckoned with, and one that is hard to ignore,” continues Attard.

Together they worship him and perform sensual rituals with a fierce, animalistic devotion. In doing so, Dionysos unleashes his feminine sexuality on the city and destroys social order.

Eventually, Pentheus’ desire to see what goes on atop the hill where they worship gets the better of him. Pentheus’ mother Agave (Pia Zammit) also participates in a bloody orgy.

The six Bakkhai, played by Laura Best, Coryse Borg, Nicola Abela Garrett, Maria Pia Meli, Veronica Stivala and Marta Vella, also serve as the Chorus.

“They are the commentators as well as the voice of the people,” continues Attard, who explains that the actresses have been steadily working on the varying aspects of their performances for over two months.

“They evocatively sing, speak and dance their way through the space as the story plays out. They are the glue that holds the whole piece together. It is very demanding, as all six have to work very intricately together, while also developing their individual nuances and characteristics.”

Looking at the details of the production, it is clear that this is a very holistic show. No stone has been left unturned, from the beautiful and original soundtrack composed by Alex Vella Gregory, to the truly dynamic set, which works on so many levels:

The set merges contemporary staging that reminds one of a pop concert, with the rich tradition starting from Greek times. It also cleverly incorporates a local touch and has references to village feasts.
Indeed there are many parallels to be made between Greek life 2,000 years ago and Maltese society today.

The Bacchae mirrors modern society in so many ways,” continues Attard.

“It shows how, whether it is religion, politics or a new cult following, you cannot control the workings of bacchanalia. Also, society needs it to be there; it is completely integral to our culture and beliefs.”
This is a story about family and its destructive relationships, about the rational and structured versus the irrational and free, and the power struggle between man and woman.

“It may seem very complicated, but it really isn’t,” smiles Attard. “It’s just a wonderful, engaging story that still has a fantastic role to play.

“The audience will doubtlessly enjoy the movement and music, and will form associations with one character or another. Meanwhile, the emotions of the show are constantly shifting between sorrow, humour and anger, and those watching are free to react in any way they want.”

Echoing Attard’s beliefs about the ongoing bearing of the story, writer Greig explains why he chose to craft an updated version of it. “Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: ‘Why now?’

“For me, Euripides’ concerns are as relevant in 2011 as they were over two millennia ago. There are still men who control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself – as it always will.”

The show will be staged on October 21-23, 28-30 and November 4-6. Tickets can be bought from